CEDAR CITY, Utah — Utah's liquor control commissioners walked into a bar.
It's not the setup to a really good joke. The Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission held what were technically public meetings on Tuesday inside Instant Gratification Winery and Policy Kings Brewery in Cedar City.
"This would be our first trip to a licensed establishment as a group," DABC Commission Chair Thomas Jacobson told FOX 13.
Obviously, individual commissioners have been in bars before. But it's the first time the commission as a whole has ventured into a licensed bar.
"These are the people who in effect are our customers, our clients, if you will," Jacobson said. "We have folks who are applying for licenses and all we’re seeing is paperwork when we’re in Salt Lake City."
It's also the first time the DABC commission has met outside of Salt Lake City. They conducted the business portion of Tuesday's meeting in St. George and also visited a state liquor store in the area.
"I think its so important for us to be better commissioners, to understand how our licensing and other decisions impact the businesses that are licensees or applicants," said Commissioner Tara Thue.
DABC Executive Director Tiffany Clason has been traveling the state to meet with liquor licensees to find ways to improve service. Bringing commissioners along was designed to give them feedback from the people the agency serves.
"A big portion of our customers are small businesses, they are our mom and pop or even large hospitality resorts, bars, restaurants," she said. "It’s great to come off the Wasatch Front, be in a different part of the state, and see what are shared challenges and then what are unique challenges they are facing we need to understand as a department."
Over lunch, Doug McCombs, the owner of Instant Gratification Winery told commissioners his successes and challenges. He hosts a popular wine festival in Cedar City, but doesn't actually sell his bottles in state-run liquor stores. A large part of his clientele is outside Utah. He spoke to commissioners about trying to get wine clubs and tricky legal issues he runs into as a winery.
"The challenge is always going to be what can the commission do versus what the legislature has to do. But I appreciate the fact that they wanted to hear some of those concerns and start the ball rolling," McCombs told FOX 13.
As a liquor control state, the DABC makes over a half-billion a year in alcohol sales in Utah. On Tuesday, the agency announced its sales were up $20 million over last year. But licenses are a limited supply. This month, the commission wouldn't even hear from 15 bar applicants because they have no licenses to award until December. They also ran out of resort licenses for Utah's lucrative ski industry.
The problem has gotten so bad, commissioners have started to encourage people who show up to meetings to complain to call their elected lawmakers.
"The DABC commission can only do so much and the number of bar licenses is controlled by the state legislature," said Thue. "That’s why I think you’re going to hear more and more DABC commissioners say talk to your legislators. Because it really is an issue that directly impacts more than the businesses applying for the licenses, but the economy."
Jacobson said the Utah State Legislature is expected to address the licensing issue in the 2022 legislative session.